Allison Demmert grew up in Edmonds. But in her teens and twenties, she spent her summers in Alaska, salmon fishing on her father’s boat—a long-held tradition for Allison’s native Southeast Alaska family. She performed nearly every job on the boat, including working on deck, operating machinery, navigating, driving the power skiff, performing basic maintenance, and cooking.
Allison enjoyed the work so much that she kept at it for 15 years after graduating from high school in 2004 and Seattle Pacific University in 2007.
New opportunities through the Seattle Maritime Academy
Even after spending so many summers salmon fishing, the one place she didn’t know well was the engine room. Allison explains that she finally decided that if she wanted to run her own boat someday, she’d need to know “what’s going on from top to bottom.” With this goal in mind, she enrolled during 2017-18 in the Seattle Maritime Academy’s year-long engineering program. The program fit her needs perfectly; it was condensed and included an internship component, which gave her plenty of hands-on training.
Allison landed an internship at Western Towboat in October 2018, which turned into a full-time position. She’s grateful that the company gave her time off to study and apply for a Designated Duty Engineering license, which she received in early 2019. Today, she’s sailing as a Chief Engineer helping the company pull barges to Alaska.
Running barges to Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound
Western Towboat’s biggest customer is Alaska Marine Lines, which sends two freight barges of cargo to SE Alaska and one combination freight and rail barge to Whittier, Alaska each week. The 420-foot combination barge starts at the Alaska Marine Lines (AML) yard on the Duwamish River and is pulled, by two harbor assist tugs, up the river and through the Spokane St. Swing Bridge. It then docks at the railroad loading dock at Pier 15 ½, at the end of Harbor Island in Elliott Bay, to load cargo that includes rail cars and shipping containers.
From there, the 130-foot, 5,000-horsepower Western Towboat tug picks up the barge and they make the week-long — or longer, depending on weather — voyage to Whittier, Alaska, carrying rail cars and cargo containers with everything from building materials to food, paper products, vehicles, and chemicals.
Since the barges carry essential food like fresh produce to remote regions of Alaska, many of the shipping containers include temperature control capability and are inspected regularly to ensure everything is functioning properly. Visiting the barge to check refrigerant levels and other mechanical features of these containers is one of Allison’s key onboard duties.
Engineering responsibilities aboard the tug
While onboard the tug, Allison says that her main job is to “stand watch in the engine room,” monitoring gauges and listening for abnormal sounds. She’s constantly vigilant; “I have to use my eyes and ears to make sure everything is running like it’s supposed to,” she explains. Open communication and “constant dialogue” with the captain are also a significant part of her job. She keeps the captain informed so there are no surprises.
Should anything malfunction, it’s Allison’s job to fix it, and they have spare components onboard. Small pumps periodically develop leaks and fuel filters get dirty, and this constitutes much of the routine maintenance. Allison tops off fluids regularly and keeps a log of potential problems. In the rare event that she runs into a more serious problem onboard, she can call and consult one of the company’s port engineers.
Transporting goods back to Seattle
On return trips, the barge is typically loaded with things like rail cars full of scrap metal and full containers of processed fish. The Alaskan fish are processed in canneries that are a key industry for Alaskan coastal towns. The barge docks back at Alaska Marine Lines’ facility, is offloaded, and the fish is then distributed to grocery stores and restaurants around our region. It’s also loaded onto trains for transport across the country.
Western Towboat builds and repairs its own boats at its full-service Seattle shipyard, where Allison occasionally works when she’s not on a trip to Alaska. She enjoys being part of a well-integrated ship-to-shore team because, “I don’t have to figure it all out by myself.”
The shipyard is a good place to learn new skills and she appreciates the interaction with other mechanics in the company. “It’s incredible what they do,” she says. “They have a lot of highly skilled people who stay on the beach” who can, if needed, “swap out an engine in two days’ turnaround time.”
A woman in a traditionally male-dominated field
Asked about how it works being a woman in the predominantly male field of marine engineering, Allison laughs and describes how when she first started out, other mechanics and engineers in her network had heard about, but not yet met her. Once when she a attended a training, she heard the comment “Oh, you’re the woman engineer!” Mostly, she says, her male counterparts were just surprised and curious.
While women have made inroads in the fishing industry in recent years – and Allison’s sense of women’s capabilities was shaped by “grow[ing] up alongside daughters of fisherman who are just as tough or tougher than the guys” — the tugboat industry is different. Very few women work in on tugs.
“The first few months,” she reports, “I had to reestablish myself all over again.” What helped her build credibility with her new peers, she says, is “the history. I had worked on boats.” She believes her openness, communication skills, and willingness to ask for help have also facilitated the process of earning respect from the men she works with. She’s eager to learn and strives to be “a good collaborative teammate” who does her job exceptionally well.
Allison acknowledges that “things still may need to change” for the field of marine engineering to be widely accessible to women. While she has worked with a lot of people who are “totally progressive” and supportive, and she also recognizes that some people still resist the idea of a woman in this line of work. She explains, “I’ve had to make my peace with idea that some people don’t think I belong.”
She’s felt very supported by the captain and shore side staff. While she’s usually “an introvert,” she says that “When I’m on the boat, out of my room, I’m ‘on’ socially…and wanting to be good shipmate and representative of women.”
Looking toward the future
Allison was promoted to the position of primary engineer faster than she expected, in part, she explains, because of her excellent education at the Seattle Maritime Academy and her internship experience. Now, she’s starting to train others, and says she enjoys the “people-oriented” focus. “I love that. It’s really fun for me.” She wants to participate in more vocational skills training and mentorship of those coming up in the field. She also is interested in helping more with big projects in the shipyard when she’s not sailing.
For now, she appreciates the job stability “in an uncertain world,” the opportunities to learn, and the ability to work with new people. Asked what she might do next, she says “I’m open to the future. I might not have one job that I do forever – there are so many interesting jobs out there.” Nevertheless, Allison says, she is her father’s daughter, and whatever that future holds, “I do envision myself working on the water!”